'Sex' is safe bet at boxoffice

Movie based on series should provide escapist fun

Safe "Sex:" Films that arrive in the marketplace with major brand name recognition are typically franchise episodes or comic book driven fantasies, but occasionally there are exceptions.

A case in point is Michael Patrick King's wonderfully entertaining "Sex and the City" from New Line Cinema, opening Friday via Warner Bros. With six years of first-run series exposure on HBO to its credit plus several years in cable syndication, "Sex" is a mega-brand name despite being an original movie and given its built-in appeal to female moviegoers it's a safe bet to perform impressively at the boxoffice. The film should benefit from the fact that it delivers over two hours of great escapist fun at a time when moviegoing in general has gotten so serious that most of the fun has disappeared.

Written and directed by King, "Sex" was produced by Sarah Jessica Parker and King and executive produced by Toby Emmerich, Richard Brener, Kathryn Busby and Jonathan Filley. Starring are Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon, David Eigenberg, Evan Handler, Jason Lewis, Mario Cantone, Lynn Cohen and Willie Garson with Jennifer Hudson, Candice Bergen and Chris Noth. The movie's costumes, which are like an additional star, should put costume designer Patricia Field, an Oscar nominee for "The Devil Wears Prada," back on the awards track later this year.

After an early and very enjoyable look at "Sex" -- which my wife and daughter both loved, as well -- I was delighted to be able to focus recently with King on the making of the movie. Knowing that years of work went into coming up with the right storyline for the feature, I began by asking him how difficult it was to figure out what now seems like exactly the perfect plot. Without giving anything away here, the storyline revolves largely around whether Carrie Bradshaw (Parker) and Big (Noth) are getting married.

"I never actually wrote the script at the first flurry of (interest in making) the movie three years ago," he told me. "I sort of had an outline that was just only in my hands that I told to Sarah Jessica and to the producing entity at that time. It was a different vibe than this. Since I had written the girls (for the HBO series) as this really tight unit for six years, I was trying to do something slightly different. So I thought, 'Well, let me deconstruct the group a little bit and make it more of a hijinks movie' (which would have been) more fun because we had just ended with such a beautiful sort of pathos finale. I'm always trying to do what's newer -- what haven't I done?

"But nothing really materialized until this last time. From the time I got that call it was relatively fast. The script, itself, that I actually filmed (is) a big, big bountiful feast. It's over two hours and 15 minutes and it's actually the cut that I would have released. It is my director's cut and New Line was incredibly understanding of the size. If anybody was going to understand it, they are. I mean they're 'Lord of the Rings' and now they've got 'Lord of the Engagement Rings,' as well. They understand big movies. When I sat down to actually write it, I thought, 'Oh, now I just write a big movie. This should be easier than writing the series because it's so big.' When I printed out my first draft it was 365 pages! I thought I wanted the movie to span a year, but not literally be a page a day. The reason I think it was is that I'm used to telling 20 episodes of the story each year. So I thought, 'How am I going to cut this down?'"

The struggle, King explained, "was about four female leads and four female storylines -- all with an arc -- which is what we did every year on the series and I thought had to be represented in the movie. Most movies are (with a star like) Kate Hudson and then her sort of fatter sidekick at Starbucks and if you get long you cut the sidekick's scene. So here I had four women that I thought the audience was waiting to see. The real struggle for me was how to keep it full and yet lean enough that I could get four big stories in one seating. I sometimes felt like that plate spinner on the old Ed Sullivan show. I had four plates spinning all at the same time.

"It was a really interesting structural lesson to figure (out in terms of) the difference between the series and this movie. I'm really happy with the way the story unfolds because I wanted it to have a bigger epic feeling. That's why I did pick a year because I think that you don't get over big emotions in an episode in 10 seconds. You need to stay in a year to get over stuff and that's when dramatic stuff happens."

When King saw his first rough cut of the movie, he recalled, "The first thing I felt was that I didn't have that extended a prolog that is in the movie now. I thought, 'I'm not up to speed.' There wasn't enough information to really pay off the fact that Charlotte (Davis) had an Asian daughter named Lily and that Samantha (Cattrall) had been very sexually active and now she was sort of monogamous and that Miranda (Nixon) had been a tough love girl and that Carrie and Big had been through many incarnations. I knew that all that information was in the body of the movie, but I really thought that if (someone) had never seen the series it would not be the best way to start.

"So I went back and thought I've got to add (material) and that's when I came up with the idea of (Carrie's three best-selling) books coming to life. And that way if you've never seen the series you get very clearly in 10 seconds who these characters were. And if you have seen the series, it's like a 'best of' -- oh that moment, oh that moment! It's really interesting to take six years and break it down into three minutes. The opening's really pretty (with) all the pink and the energy and the color. It's exciting, I think."

Besides the film's four gal pals, "Sex" has a new character in Louise from St. Louis, Carrie's assistant, played by Oscar and Golden Globe winner Jennifer Hudson. "She is so genuine," King observed. "The reason I brought that character in is, first of all, the movie to me (is about) the evolution of the girls -- who they were and who they are now -- and how 20-something girls become 40-something women. I thought, 'Well, I've got to have a 20-something girl.' Maybe there are girls who are 20 who are watching it when they didn't see it before, who are still watching it (on cable) or getting the DVDs. So I thought that in every big city there's always an influx of new energy. That's the New York part. There's always a 20-something girl coming to New York. So I thought, 'I've got to bring in somebody to represent the younger version to actually do a juxtaposition to how Carrie feels about love at 40 in her predicament and how somebody who's 20 still believes in sort of a fairy tale of love. I wanted it to be an African-American character because I thought that in a big city that was literally missing from the series. Whenever I would meet African-American women or minority women over the years since the series was off the air they'd always say to me, 'I loved the series and (the girls were like) sisters.' It was always said with such love that I felt, 'Well, if I bring in a 20-something character I already have four amazing prototype women, what's literally the arc type that was missing?' It was Jennifer, I guess. She's an amazingly genuine beauty that's not ever been on the show before so it felt new to me. It was really important to me to bring a new element in to also help make the movie different than the series."

To King's great credit, even with all these character arcs to deal with people don't disappear during the film and we don't wind up wondering afterwards about how their stories were resolved.

"It was complicated," he noted. "I was never daunted by writing these characters again because I love them and I feel that they're really interesting and still have many secrets. The hard part for me was the balances -- how do you go and come back and go and come back? It was really important to me and I thank you for noticing that because I personally get frustrated in movies where they just drop threads and there's nothing finished (or you think that maybe you missed something). You just go, 'That didn't finish. What was that set-up for if it didn't pay off?'

"One of the things that we got to do on the series was work thematically and tie up ends and stuff. So for me the challenging and the most thrilling part about writing this was all the emotional invisible thread that ties it all together that maybe you don't even hear them talking about, but you feel. I wanted people to feel the connection between all these characters. And so it was really about trying to find the best moments. Once I had it and I got it, then in the editing room it was like, 'Okay, now it's time to see Charlotte again.' And I did all that when I was writing it, too. So there were a lot of balance issues (with) four story lines that are connected and yet different."

When King was doing the HBO series, he explained, "We would shoot two episodes at once and it was over the course of like three weeks. We would do two while we were prepping the next two while we were editing the former two (which kept us on the run) constantly. The feature shot in a perfect 69 days. I think we started out with like 63 days and then we went to 69 because of weather and locations and (so forth). But 69 days felt perfect for 'Sex and the City!' As a matter of fact, in the Christie's (jewelry auction) scene when Samantha holds up her number, it's 969. I just wanted it to be 69 because I thought it was so Samantha and Christie's said, 'We don't do that number.'"

Asked how he worked with the four lead actresses, King replied, "First of all, it's a big movie and the 69 days really was luxurious but necessary because of the amount of locations in New York City and sometimes we'd go out and there'd be 300 people watching and that would slow it down. But I say the only reason we were able to do this in 69 days is because we had six years of practice with the girls. I mean I feel like I had six years of rehearsal. Six years of writing them helped me streamline the fact that when I got the script to them it was almost like it was clothing that was cut for them. So when I heard the table read we were pretty much all in synch. There were some rewrites that I did based on the table that I had to do over the three days before the writers' strike hit.

"I call those my 'psychic rewrites.' I knew I was never going to get a chance to rewrite it again if it didn't work so I estimated based on my past and what I thought would work. But as far as the actresses go, literally it's this amazing dance where they're kind of perfect and if something didn't work I usually assumed it was the writing, but because they're so perfect they hid whatever flaws I would have missed."

The process, King added, "was at rehearsal as we were about to block it I would block it, then they'd go to hair and makeup and come back and they would play it perfectly. If there was a change I would change it or if a camera shot wasn't quite doing what I should do I would do it. But it was minimal. It was this great sort of intuitive 'they know how to play these characters.' I wrote something that was slightly new for each of them --enough that the DNA was the same, but it was still fresh and exciting to them. No one felt like they were playing the same beat again that they'd played before so all the energy was excited.

"If I needed an adjustment, I'd just quietly say to them (whatever was needed), but I'm telling you they'd never been better. So for me it was really about (just getting the) coverage. I have a box of dailies I could show you and every take is worthwhile. It's really just about which shade did I want. There was never a moment where I went, 'Oh, Christ, were we all off!' When I was looking at the dailies, I didn't know if the movie would work, but I did know that they were doing what I wrote., which is thrilling but also daunting because I would look and go, 'Yeah, that's exactly what I wanted only better.'"

Do the four "Sex" stars have different styles of acting? "It's really interesting. They're all completely different. Sarah Jessica is a producer, as well, but when I look through the lens as a director I still don't know what she's doing as Carrie Bradshaw," he explained. "I mean, it's so layered and so subtle that when you look at it it's almost like she's not acting at all and I wrote her a symphony. I mean, she does everything an actress could possibly do in this movie and it all looks like she's not acting and sort of like she's Carrie Bradshaw.

"As a matter of fact, Patrick Demarchelier, who's the photographer who takes her picture in the Vogue sequence (in which Carrie wears various wedding gowns for a magazine layout), is a real Vogue photographer and he photographed her like three other times as Sarah Jessica and he said to me, 'This Carrie Bradshaw -- she's different.' And I said, 'How?' And he said, 'I'm not sure, but she's different to photograph.' So it's kind of magical and mysterious."

In the Vogue scene Candice Bergen returns to play Enid Frick, Carrie's editor. Bergen and King go way back to Bergen's hit series "Murphy Brown" on which King was a writer-producer early in his TV career. "Candice played Enid, as you know, on the series a lot," he said, "so when I called up I was like, 'Can you please just do me this one scene?' and she was like, 'I would love to.' I mean, Candice Bergen was my first star. She's the first really funny, strong, classy woman I ever worked with so she set the bar for the other women I've worked with. But she's great and that whole Vogue sequence -- I haven't seen anything like that in a movie since 'Funny Face' (Stanley Donen's classic 1957 romantic comedy in which Fred Astaire played a photographer -- reportedly inspired by the legendary Richard Avedon -- who photographs Audrey Hepburn in Paris for a Vogue-like fashion magazine whose editor was memorably played by Kay Thompson).

"(The scene in 'Sex') was an homage. I knew also that if Carrie Bradshaw was to get married, one wedding gown would not be enough to justify the fashion heads of everybody in the audience (who) would want more and more and more. So I just wrote that to justify all the different versions of how people would like her to be a bride."

Coming back to how the actresses differ, he continued, "Cynthia is intuitive and so no-fuss, no-muss and just present and emotional and easy. They're all different, but special. Kim is like wildly comic and game and like, 'What's the best physical bit we can do here?' or 'Where are you putting the orchids when I'm naked?' She's just like aware of the comedy job that she had to do as well as the emotional stuff. Kristin is the type of actress who loves to remember what has come on before. Like she's very involved in the story of where she's just come from. And yet to me there's not a diva there at all. They're just all showing up, ready to go and then they do their thing and it's fun for me because it's like working with four different thoroughbreds. I guess like any thoroughbred they all race a little differently."

As for the film's fabulous clothes, King observed, "I always say people make the mistake of saying that the reason the series was popular was because of the clothes. I always wanted to say to them, 'Really? Are there a lot of people pulling their chairs up to the front of their closets every Sunday night at nine just laughing and crying at their clothing?' It's not the clothes, it's the girls in the clothes and the stories behind the clothes. What I loved about what Pat (Field) did with the clothes in the series (is that) it started with Carrie and she was this sort of outward manifestation physically with her clothes of everything she was inside. So for me in the movie I knew that the emotions of the girls were really vibrant. It was really important to me to have a really emotional movie and (I was really pleased) when I saw what Pat was doing and how she instinctively was making it even more vibrant.

"I had an emotional evolution for the girls when I was writing it. She did a style evolution where she told me Miranda was now here and Carrie was more sophisticated and she was here and everybody was a little bit more grown up. What's great about it is that I totally accept the fact that the clothes are really the whipped cream and the cherry (on top of the movie sundae). I get that. They're a big deal. I think in the movie I trusted more the idea of clothes as being a big expression (of the women) than I did in the series."

Reflecting on the series' Paris-set finale, King pointed out, "I learned at the very end of the series when we were doing the Paris episode and Pat Field had that gigantic ball gown that Carrie gets stood up with by Baryshnikov in Paris and it's totally impractical that Carrie's in this dress. Pat Field called me down to the costume shop and she pointed at the dress and said to me, 'This just came in from Paris. It wants to be in the show.' It was gigantic. It was standing on its dress form and it was huge. And I said to her, 'Pat, where would that be packed? Why would she even take that?' She said to me, 'I'm just saying it's fabulous and it wants to be in the show.' I walked out of the costume shop and had this thought that maybe I should follow that (advice). So I went back and I said okay and I wrote that she was stood up in this dress, which made (being) stood up even more painful. But people never stopped talking about that dress. I thought that was as important as anything I was going to write.

"And in this movie, when Carrie goes to the fashion show she's wearing those crazy feathers in that black net dress. Pat showed that to me and I said, 'Pat, she's more subdued, more hidden because of what's happened. I want her to be a little more low key.' Pat said, 'Oh, please! It's been months. We want to see feathers.' I went home and I rewrote the scene and now I'm glad I did because sometimes you just want to see the feathers. And I realized the movie is emotional, the movie is grounded in reality, the movie is sad, so the clothes can be a little bit more vibrant. We've been waiting a long time to see these girls, why shouldn't they look great? But it's a great dance (with Field) and it was like that with (production designer) Jeremy Conway, who's our art director. You know, 'What's your idea?' 'Charlotte's apartment (is) even more vibrant and real.' Everybody brought their best. The actresses were never better. Pat was never more inspired. Jeremy was brilliant."

When I noted that when Carrie and Big first see her dream penthouse apartment it's empty of furniture, but is still decorated so perfectly that it comes across instantly as the rare co-op that it is. "You've got the eye. You noticed that," he replied. "The apartment's empty, but Jeremy put a gilded mirror against the back wall so that there's lighting and somehow you think it's (the Hall of Mirrors at) Versailles. It's little touches like that that you never forget and I knew just like Pat's clothes had to be over the top in a good way, that that apartment had to be the gateway drug for Carrie! That's like, 'How can you not live here?' Then it continues with the closet (that Big has custom built to hold Carrie's tons of clothes and shoes). Then it continues to the (choice of a designer) wedding gown. And it just keeps getting more and more like a recipe for disaster."

Carrie's concerns over whether they can afford the co-op are instantly wiped out when Big says matter of factly, "I got it." "Which is the ultimate cool guy move," King said. "On one level you understand that that's the greatest expression of grown-up coolness and on the other hand you understand that (when Carrie tells her Big's buying the apartment) Miranda's like, 'Wait a minute. What? That's vague. That's not good.' It was always about trying to show as many complicated sides to everything as I could. I knew one thing when I was working on it in the editing room. I didn't know if it was all going to work, but the one thing I could tell people was that the movie was beautiful. I knew that because it is and the girls look beautiful and the design is beautiful. That's what you go to the movies for, I think."

The movie works so well that it's hard to believe it's King's first feature film as a director. "Yes, you are right," he answered when I asked if that really were the case. "This is it. This is the big leap. This is my evolution from the work we did on the series, which I always felt was very filmic. I mean, in those 30 minute episodes sometimes we'd do 38 scenes. It was always shot on film, but it was never (like) this. I practiced on the series a lot. There were days that I set up Carrie's street and (did) huge dolly shots and treated it like an MGM back lot, but when I got the chance to do the movie everything that I'd sort of been learning and discovering over the years paid off.

"One of the big things that helped me on the movie that I learned on the series was to really listen to the geniuses that are working with you (like) John Thomas, the DP (who had worked with King on the series). He did a beautiful job and he's effortless to work with. It was a real fun challenge to, first of all, work on a different size screen and really understand that the pacing is different. For me as a writer I wanted the movie to be not like I directed the series, which occasionally was just cutting between talking heads because the girls talk a lot."

Looking ahead, King definitely wants to direct more features: "I loved being able to concentrate on one big story and really just do that. I know that this is a really blessed experience because of the work that everybody had done before. So we were sort of given the benefit of the doubt creatively as well as budget-wise. Everything was top line because there was a brand we were trying to live up to."

It will be tough to find another property that has so much going for it, he agreed, "unless you write it -- and luckily I know the writer of this one! So maybe I can work with him again."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From March 1, 1991's column: "After coping so well with the doomsday combination of recession and war, Hollywood's prospects are again a subject for speculation.

"With the (Gulf) war in its final stages now and with some economists convinced the worst of the recession is already behind us, the marketplace for theatrical movies stands to experience some changes in the coming months. Just how positive those changes are, however, remains to be seen.

"One can argue, for example, that with America's mood now one of joy over defeating Saddam Hussein, the country will be ready to enjoy itself. But that may or may not translate into more moviegoing. The public has been doing a lot of moviegoing lately...But when those war clouds are gone, the public could turn to other forms of entertainment and recreation. Travel, for instance, has been severely impacted by the threat of terrorism associated with the war. In the postwar environment people are likely to be less worried about terrorist attacks...

"High gasoline prices that made people think twice about driving to area theme parks are already on the decline. Fears that the war would send crude oil prices to $100 a barrel turned out to be unfounded, With gasoline prices already about where they were prewar, people could start driving again to local theme parks. Any significant increase in vacations by air or car could come at the expense of cheaper stay-at-home vacations that include moviegoing..."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com